One of the most commonly accepted clichés of American television is the family sitcom with the schlubby husband and gorgeous wife. It’s so pervasive that a quick Google search brings up this entry on the topic from TvTropes.org, which features 3,700+ words devoted to live action TV examples alone. Most TV fans look down on this conceit and series that use it, and yes, this sitcom stereotype has a basis in truth, but when did the trend start, and just how common is it? More interestingly, is there a connection between this aspect of a show and its quality or cultural significance? Here are 12 of the best and most influential American network sitcoms, along with a look at how each series plays into, subverts, or ignores the regular Joe/hot wife cliché.
I Love Lucy centers on main couple Lucy and Ricky (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), an attractive housewife and her glamorous bandleader husband. At first glance, this is an easy example of a series that subverts the cliché. However, take a closer look at upstairs neighbors Ethel and Fred (Vivian Vance and William Frawley).
Though The Honeymooners only lasted one season, it is perhaps the most influential comedy on this list. It features Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows as Ralph and Alice Kramden and Art Carney and Joyce Randolph as Ed and Trixie Norton. Unlike I Love Lucy, the jobs aren’t glamorous (Ralph’s a bus driver and Ed’s a sewer worker), and the central relationship between Ralph and Alice is the fat-and-funny/skinny-and-domineering template for many, many shows to come, including The Flintstones and, much later, The Simpsons, though in the original, the negative traits that came later to be associated with the “Alice” role are far less apparent.
One of the first series to bring the audience behind the scenes of a television show, The Dick van Dyke Show followed lead Rob Petrie (Dick van Dyke) from his home life with his lovely wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) to his job as a writer for a variety/sketch show. Many earlier series featured talent who transitioned from radio to TV, bringing their fanbases with them, resulting in series with average-looking couples, or at least, average-looking men. In the 60s, there was more of an emphasis on appearance, resulting in more series with young, stylish, attractive leads.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show changed television with Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore), its independent, career-woman lead. Mary is a 30-something strong woman who is happy to not depend on a husband, a core tenant of the character that the show stayed true to for its entire run. The series also discusses many feminist issues of the day. That didn’t stop it from falling prey to this particular trope. Pretty, sweet Georgette Franklin (Georgia Engel) spends the series dating, and eventually marrying odious head anchor Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), and the two are the series’ most consistent and prominent couple.
Just as groundbreaking as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, though in different ways, is All in the Family. Centered around racist curmudgeon Archie Bunker (Carol O’Connor) and his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), this series looks at an average, working class family, for better and worse, with Archie’s conservative (to put it kindly) beliefs countered by his liberal daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and son-in-law Micheal (Rob Reiner)’s views. The series broached taboo topics as wide ranging as racial issues, sexual assault, cancer, Vietnam, menopause, homosexuality, and abortion, while remaining consistently funny (and retaining its audience- it was the #1 show on TV for 5 years in a row). Its realistic, close look at middle America makes it a clear subverter of the schlubby husband/hot wife trope.
Taxi is significant for, above all else, its breakout character Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito), who is, to say the least, a scumbag. The character may not have a single redeeming feature and is one of the earliest examples of the now-common villainous TV regular. It’s a cast of very funny people, from Christopher Lloyd to Andy Kaufman, and while various relationships developed amongst the regulars, it never fell into this particular cliché. Elaine (Marilu Henner), the female regular, for example, has romantic interests ranging from Tom Selleck to Wallace Shawn, and the girlfriends of the other characters give the series a far more balanced look at relationships than many others of its time.
Quite possibly most famous for a relationship that lasted less than half of its tenure, Cheers is one of the most consistent long-running sitcoms ever made. It’s understandable that so many shows would attempt, and mostly fail, to capture its will-they-won’t-they early season magic. The relationships on the series were usually very balanced, and the central Sam-and-Diane dynamic was very much one of equals. The series toyed with the average-looking man/hot woman trope when Diane briefly dated Frasier, but this was only a stalling tactic.
The Cosby Show was influential in many ways, notably in its depiction of an affluent African American family, but perhaps its most groundbreaking aspect was how similar in structure and tone it is to many earlier sitcoms featuring Caucasian families. It showed the Americans who hadn’t yet figured it out that funny is funny, regardless of race. It also functioned as a stark contrast to some of the racist stereotyping of African Americans common on TV at the time. (And, lest we forget, it was also very, very funny, and very well received- like All in the Family, it was #1 for 5 straight seasons.) It follows the ‘80s Comedy Boom sitcom format of a series based around a (usually male) standup comedian and his routine, usually centering around the domestic side of things. Such shows almost uniformly feature an average-looking male lead and a beautiful female lead, and The Cosby Show, with the lovely Phylicia Rashad filling the wife role, is no exception.
An exception to the male bias of the ‘80s Comedy Boom sitcom format is Roseanne. This series, strongly influenced by All in the Family (but with Roseanne Barr as Archie and John Goodman as Edith), broke barriers showing a realistic lower income family, warts and all. It discussed controversial topics such as alcoholism, teen pregnancy, masturbation, drug abuse, and domestic violence, and had two overweight characters as its leads. As with All in the Family, a lot of its power and success comes from its realism and relatability to the average viewer of the time, along with the simple fact that it’s funny. The very fact that it thows out this trope, along with other sitcom trappings, is what makes it what it is.
Seinfeld is one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, and arguably the best to come from the aforementioned ‘80s Comedy Boom. This show about the minutia of daily life (it’s not actually a show about nothing), strongly derived from Jerry Seinfeld’s observational standup routine, threw out many of the accepted rules of network sitcoms. For the most part, the characters don’t live together or work together, and other than a one-episode backtrack, none are dating each other, making it one of the few true examples of a sitcom based on friends hanging out. However, despite the series’ abandonment of many common sitcom conventions, it has a long history of its regular Joe men (Jerry, George, Kramer, Neuman) dating women far out of their league.
This descendant of The Honeymooners is one of the most successful sitcoms of all time. Many great comedic talents have written for the show and it long ago became The Show for celebrities to cameo on. While it shares certain elements of the Ralph/Alice dynamic (Homer is a fat, working-class doofus and Marge is his far more competent, attractive wife), it differs greatly in the relationship the two share. Where Alice was sarcastic, Marge is supportive. Where Ralph was proud and blustery, Homer is oblivious. The series has gained such longevity out of the simple fact that, as an animated series, they are able to hit the reset button frequently and not deal with series-complicating issues like children growing up and guest star/recurring character contracts (it’s handy when 6 main cast members can portray 30+ characters). For all of its creativity and whimsy, The Simpsons is very much a traditional family series, and its main couple emphasizes this.
Probably the most influential recent series is Arrested Development. Its single-camera setup and discarding of the laugh track set the stage for a lot of the most successful and critically acclaimed series on the air now. It is also one of the first series seemingly designed for the DVD/DVR age, with layers upon layers of jokes and character moments making it nearly impossible to catch everything the first time around, let alone the blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em setups to jokes that don’t pay off until several episodes later. It draws from Taxi and Seinfeld, featuring mostly unlikable, zany characters, but takes this several steps forward, getting the characters into increasingly absurd situations. While the main character, Michael (Jason Bateman)’s relationships sidestep the schlubby man/gorgeous woman cliché, the rest of the adult relationships play directly into it, with Lindsay and Tobias (Portia da Rossi and David Cross), GOB and Marta (Will Arnett and Leonor Varela/Patricia Velasquez), and Lucille and George/Oscar (Jessica Walters and Jeffrey Tambor). The series does subvert this somewhat though with George Michael (Michael Cera)’s girlfriend Ann (Mae Whitman), and the jury’s still out on how to describe Lucille 2 and Buster (Liza Minnelli and Tony Hale).
Of the 12 excellent, groundbreaking series discussed above, 7 fall into the average man/beautiful woman category, 2 feature attractive couples, and 3 center on average couples. This is roughly proportionate to the overall trend in sitcoms, which will be discussed below, demonstrating that, while this cliché may become tiring or frustrating on many series, it is by no means an indicator of quality or a ploy used solely as a ratings grab. It has also clearly been a common feature of American network sitcoms practically as long as they’ve existed.
Author’s note: As discussed here, I like graphs and charts. In doing my research for this article, I compiled a bunch of data to look into just how frequent and pervasive a trend this particular TV trope is, so I figured I’d include those too, with some brief analysis.
I compiled data on 129 American network sitcoms with central heterosexual couples, selecting series that were either particularly influential or ran for 5+ seasons, and separated the series into 4 categories- series with average or normal lead/prominent couples, series with particularly attractive couples, and series with disproportionately attractive couples (almost exclusively, these were couples with a markedly more attractive woman. Of the 129, only 3 featured a couple with a markedly more attractive man). It’s not a complete list, but it feels like a solid start.
Of course, beauty is subjective, but I did my best to be objective and consider the looks popular when these series aired. If there was a disparity, ie one prominent disproportionate couple and one average or attractive couple, I put that series under “disproportionate”. I also went based on the actor’s appearance, rather than what the series wanted the viewer to think the character looked like. Monica is not out of Chandler’s league, no matter what the Friends writers want us to think.
This graph shows the percent of each couple category by decade. As you can see, the percentage of series with disproportionate (woman) couples decreased markedly over time in favor of at first attractive, and then both attractive and average couples, until the 1990s. Interestingly, after the 1950s, the percentage of attractive couples on TV has remained fairly consistent (besides the drop from the 1980s-1990s), while the percentage of average couples has fluctuated more.
This graph shows the percent of each couple category by network over their entire history. All of the networks feature disproportionate (woman) couples in more than half their programming, but it’s interesting that CBS has the largest percentage of this, by far. Also interesting is that FOX is the only network to feature fewer attractive couples than average couples, by more than half. That would indicate that they have a particular historical aversion to programming with attractive male leads. Perhaps this is indicative of their preferred demographic, at least for their sitcoms?
This line graph shows the percentage of average couples by network over time. Fox has had a distinctly higher percentage over its entire history than the other networks, but most surprising is CBS’s utter lack of average or “normal” couples from the 1980s on. It would seem that they really don’t want to put average looking women on their sitcoms.
This line graph shows the percentage of attractive couples by network over time. It’s interesting that, while NBC has stayed within the same 10% range from the 1960s on, ABC and CBS have varied dramatically. FOX has as well, but there are far fewer data points for it, as by far the youngest major network. It’s also interesting that ABC is currently at an all-time low, while CBS is nearly back to their network high in the 1960s.
This line graph shows the percentage of disproportionate (woman) couples by network over time. FOX has been trending downwards since the 1990s, as have CBS and NBC, but ABC has had a steep increase in the past 10 years, back to their 1960s high. NBC is at its lowest percentage ever, as is FOX, but CBS, though declining, currently matches ABC.
These line graphs show the percentage of each category by network over time. Of particular note is that NBC is currently equivalent in all three and that the last time numbers close that happened was in the 1980s, which is also when ABC was the closest to parity, whereas CBS in the 1980s was widely spread, but very similarly spread to the extent they are now. Also interesting is that ABC and CBS’s disproportionate (woman) and attractive percentages seem to be roughly mirror images.
What do you think of this phenomenon? Do you agree or disagree with any of the 12 specific series classifications? What’s your favorite schlubby hubby/lovely lady sitcom? Post your thoughts below!